In an isolated desert facility, individuals — some terminally ill, others simply eager for a new start — gather to be cryogenically frozen in the hope of awakening to health and a better a world. The setup is befitting of a science fiction novel, but Don Delillo, author of “Zero K,” is a writer deeply concerned with the current moment. The characters in the new novel may have the future on their minds, but it is the present with which they are attempting to come to terms.
Readers of Delillo’s work, which includes “White Noise,” “Libra,” “Mao II,” “Underworld,” and a number of other novels as well as plays and a short story collection, will recognize many of his recurring motifs in “Zero K.” He’s interested in isolation, but also in the behavior of crowds. He’s interested in the nature of experience mediated through screens (and he delivers a stunning moment wherein an image on a screen bursts into physical reality). He’s interested in the challenges inherent in attempting to understand one another and ourselves.
He’s also interested in the ways the ultra-rich can set themselves apart from others, and whether that separateness provides any solace. Certainly, the book’s cryogenic procedure is the purview of the wealthy, but Delillo also considers how the rich live in the here and now.
Delillo’s prose is nearly incantatory in “Zero K,” particularly in the early going as the narrator adjusts to the strange facility where the procedure takes place:
“I entered my room by placing the disk on my wristband against the magnetic fixture embedded in the middle panel of the door. The room was small and featureless. It was generic to the point of being a thing with walls. The ceiling was low, the bed was bedlike, the chair was a chair. There were no windows.”
The sparseness of the prose and the setting of the first half of the novel could, in lesser hands, render the reading experience airless. But Delillo is skilled at balancing his story’s carefully crafted lulls with vivid jolts. “Zero K” is a fine addition to an impressive body of work.